Israeli Vipers – Amos Dor

Review by Takis Diakoumis.

Approaching 5000 deliveries, the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon will remain one of the most successful fighter aircraft projects of all time. It was originally developed as a highly manoeuvrable, lightweight multi-role aircraft addressing many of the lessons of the air war over Vietnam. The fourth-generation F-16 was the first ‘Electric Jet’ and introduced relaxed static stability, or fly-by-wire, control systems among a large number of other advancements that included the first true hand-on-throttle-and-stick, a frameless bubble canopy for improved visibility and a reclined seat to reduce g-force effects on the pilot.

In service with just under thirty air forces and in almost continuous production since the mid-1970s, the remarkable service history of this amazing aircraft continues to unfold. A large part of this history belongs to the type’s rapid introduction and sterling service with the Israeli Air Force (IAF) which would eventually become the largest ‘foreign’ operator of the type, second only to the United States in terms of airframe numbers. The F-16, as well as the F-15 which entered service a little earlier in 1976, ushered in a quantum leap in capability and completely altered the way the IAF conducted operations. The introduction of these two critical types, over forty years ago now, created and then reinforced the enduring seismic shift in Israel’s strategic position across the Middle East.

Amos Dor follows his salute to the Israeli F-15s with the second in this new series of the most important aircraft operated by the IAF. This beautifully presented tribute to the early IAF F-16s includes hundreds of colour photographs, most never before published, as well as stunning full colour squadron profiles as the author navigates the squadron-by-squadron service history of the type right up to its final flights in 2016 – a full 36 years of service.

The IAF ordered 75 F-16s in 1978 – 67 F-16As and 8 F-16Bs. Known locally as the ‘Netz’ which is Hebrew for ‘hawk’, the aircraft were originally slated for delivery in 1981 (queued after the 160 units ordered by Iran). Following the fall of the Shah in 1979 and the Iranian order’s cancellation, the aircraft were offered to Israel. This accelerated delivery saw the hasty movement of almost 200 IAF personnel, including pilots and ground crew, to the US for familiarisation on the new type. Training was initially conducted at Hill Air Force Base in Utah using a mix of in-service USAF assets as deliveries of the first Block 5 and 10 aircraft arrived on station from General Dynamics Fort Worth, Texas, to support the conversion courses. Early pilot courses at Hill would run for two months at a time. Training included dissimilar air combat with F-5s from the USAF Aggressor squadrons where crews quickly came to appreciate the immense new capability at their disposal as the new steed tore it up against the small and nimble aggressors from Nellis.

The first four F-16s – two As and two Bs – were delivered by US crews to Ramat David Air Base (AB) in Israel in July 1980, a full year before the original planned delivery date. Ramat David AB holds the distinction of being the first Israeli base to welcome in the jet fighter era with the arrival of a pair of Gloster Meteors in 1953 for No 117 Squadron. The squadron from Ramat David would later re-equip with the Mirage III and, over seventeen active years, would achieve 94.5 kills with the French fighter. After a brief hiatus, 117 Squadron was reactivated as the first F-16 unit, reaching full operational capability within just five months in November 1980. It was not long before the type would see action as two pairs of Netz fighters each dropped six 500-pound iron bombs on a bridge in central Lebanon in order to block Syrian reinforcements during the Battle of Zahla. Just one day later, on April 28 1981, the F-16, under the Israeli flag, scored its first ever air-to-air kill as Lieutenant Rafi Berkovich used his gun to shoot down a Syrian Mi-8 helicopter. Other Syrian aircraft would follow as, barely one year later, the first MiG-23s were shot down using Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. The squadron continued its impressive combat record to the end of its Netz era in late 1986 when it upgraded to the later F-16C variants.

Amos Dor continues with a thrilling account of Operation Opera – the strike on the nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981. Iraq’s nuclear program dated back to at least the 1960s as it had repeatedly tried to convince both the French and later the Italian governments to supply them with the necessary technology and training. Eventually, Iraq managed to secure a light-water ‘research’ reactor from France with construction beginning in 1979. While still under construction, the reactor was first targeted by Iran during the opening salvoes of the Iran-Iraq war but, due to concerns the unit had already been fuelled, Iranian Phantoms only targeted control rooms and adjacent buildings.

Initial planning by the IAF for the strike centred around using its F-4E Phantoms. Phantom crews began to unknowingly train for the mission that required a number of air-to-air refuelling hook-ups from buddy A-4s where, from a projected total of 18 or 24 aircraft, only four would reach the target. The earlier than anticipated F-16 delivery, however, allowed IAF planners to explore the possibility of using the new jets for this daring strategic mission. The strange training sorties continued where crews would record fuel consumption under different conditions and configurations while the purpose of doing so remained a mystery. Crew selection carefully aimed to identify the most skilled and experienced pilots for the mission and, as preparations continued, it soon became clear the only viable target at the trained-for 600 mile range was Baghdad. In the mid-afternoon of 7 June 1981, eight new Netz fighters, each with two Mk-84 2000lb bombs and a full complement of three external fuel tanks, took off from Etzion AB on the Sinai Peninsula. They were escorted by six F-15s.

Using unguided bombs ensured the formation did not need to linger over the target area while guiding their weapons to impact. The bombs were simply pickled and the formation broke west towards the setting sun. The F-16s new continuously-computed-impact-point (CCIP) calculations allowed for extremely accurate delivery of unguided weapons as the results clearly indicated. Amos includes fascinating pilot narratives of the mission, as well as unique photos of the participating aircraft as they hold before take-off, and even a HUD view of the CCIP over the target itself.

While scientific debate continues on whether the light-water reactor could have ever really collected enough material for a nuclear weapon in anything less than decades, the Israeli strike, using formidable Netz fighters flying through Jordan and northern Saudi Arabia, altered the strategic balance in the Middle East. This was a clear and unambiguous message that Israel had not only the will to carry out brazen strategic strikes on its enemies but also the skill and equipment (Netz!) to execute the mission with almost impunity.

The 1980s and 1990s would see the Netz used repeatedly against terrorist targets in Lebanon. Skirmishes with Syrian fighters would also continue as the early Israeli F-16s dominated on their way to scoring more than fifty enemy kills that included MiG-21s and 23s, Su-22 fighter-bombers and Mi-8 and Gazelle helicopters. A further fifty surplus USAF F-16A/Bs joined the IAF in 1994. Many of these retained their USAF camouflage colours for some time after delivery before receiving the IAF desert camouflage treatment. Dubbed ‘Netz 2’, the book includes a number of photos of these jets as they were assigned to 144 IAI Nesher Squadron. It’s especially striking to see the early Netz 2s in their unusual USAF paint schemes with Israeli livery. The first Netz 2 attacked an anti-aircraft gun position in August 1995 almost a year after arrival.

Amos Dor works through each squadron with first-hand accounts from crews and never-before seen photographs of pilots and aircraft. Key dates are highlighted through each squadron history with descriptions of events relying mostly on those first-hand accounts. Squadron photo galleries are especially impressive and they include combat HUD footage as well as operational shots in the air and on the ground. The photographs included throughout the book are simply stunning – a small set of staged airborne shots that include Netz 107, one of the first delivered that also participated in Opera, as well as being the highest scoring F-16 anywhere with 6.5 kills, are just beautiful. The aircraft is now proudly displayed at the IAF museum in the Negev desert.

Israeli Vipers finishes with technical specifications and a selection of aircraft profiles covering every Netz squadron. Squadron kill tables listing every aircraft, pilot, weapon and target achieved round out the final pages. Amos’s unparalleled access to former crews, carefully curated selection of hundreds of colour photographs, and unique style make this tribute to the classic F-16 – Netz – a must for anyone studying the achievements of the IAF over the past forty years. The Netz ushered in a new era of operational capability during a time when the stakes for the young Israeli nation could not have been higher. This beautiful new book from Amos Dor is a fitting tribute to an incredible machine and the crews that flew it into battle.

ISBN 978-8-89501-1-202

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